Everywhere I go in Beijing, there are educational agencies, immigration agencies, and all manner of shady outfits advertising quick and easy access to the US. “Fastest American Visa Agent!” promises one. “All government documents, perfect quality, cannot distinguish from the real one!” promises another. Scam artists abound and they are expert at separating young, eager Chinese people from both their cash and their dreams, often blaming unnamed American government officials in the process. For so many who dream to reach the Gold Mountain, the closest they will come is helping a corrupt boss pay for gold to give his mistress.

Living in China, I was often asked similar questions by my Chinese friends. The conversation usually ended up going something like “I would like to live and work in the USA. You’re an American guy, can you tell me how to do it?” Over time, I became familiar with a lot of nuances of US immigration law, because friends would automatically assume I was an expert in it. You know, sort of like they were all experts in Chinese immigration law. Oh wait… there isn’t any way to immigrate to China, because China already has enough people. But I digress.

I always frame my response as follows:

  • • I am from Seattle. The US is a very large country and my knowledge is most focused on the software industry, computer security industry, and Internet services industry (companies like Google and Amazon) in Seattle. Although I may be a useful source of general information about life in the US, I’m sorry but I don’t have any detailed or specific information about the chemical process engineering industry in Chicago.
  • • My network of contacts is extensive… within my focus industries. I am a friendly guy but cold calling someone outside my industry on your behalf is likely to be more awkward than if you do it yourself, because I would have nothing job-related to talk about with that person. In the US, if you want to network with someone in your industry, just call. Personal introductions are always better but not essential like they are in China.
  • • I have only worked for one international company, so I only have direct knowledge of how they handle hiring.
  • • I have only ever worked in two countries, the US and China. And in China, my knowledge is most focused on the IT and online services industries in Beijing. So, although I can map really well between what opportunities look like in China versus the US, I don’t have detailed local knowledge of other markets.
  • • I have a pretty good overall understanding of my industry (described above) and the kind of people in it who are likely international hires. If you aren’t from my industry please refer to the first bullet point above.

Rude questions and answers:

Q: What is the easiest way to come to the US?
A: Are you lucky in love? Really lucky? Then charm an American into falling in love with you and get married! However, even if you do this, you cannot go to the US or work immediately. Marriage is still impossible if you are gay, and this is not likely to change for a long time. It is also impossible if you are already married to someone else, because Americans are only allowed to marry one person. This is not an issue in China but in some cultures it can be.

Q: Get married? To someone else?! Impossible! My girlfriend would kill me! And so would my parents! And American women are so…. CRAZY! Open! I could not accept that!
A: Americans believe that immigration makes us a stronger country and we encourage the best and brightest people from all over the world to come to the US not only for a better life, but to make our country better as well. However, the US has a very high unemployment rate and many qualified Americans are eager to fill the jobs. Are your skills (including your English level) as good as theirs? What can you bring to the table that is special and makes you better qualified than an American who is easier and less expensive for a company to hire?  Why would a company take all the risk to bring you to a country where you’ve never been before? They would spend so much money, what if you did a bad job once you arrive? Saving money isn’t a good reason to send you, because even though your pay may be slightly lower than American workers doing the same job, this generally reflects your lack of US experience. Companies are required to pay you comparably to a US employee and can be punished by the government if they do not.

Q: I am a top graduate from Tsinghua University! I was #1 in my class in high school! I have Beijing hukou!
A: All of these are things that are very special in China and essentially meaningless in the US. In the US, you will just be another laowai. Except we might call you “FOB” instead (means Fresh Off Boat). Don’t worry, we’re friendly to new neighbors and it’s all in good humor.

Q: There is an agency company in Beijing that promises to get me into the US. I just need to pay them up front, and they will take care of all the details because they have some guanxi with the American embassy. They said not to ask too many questions, just leave the details to them. Should I pay?
A: If you are so stupid that you believe this, then you should go onto Alipay site right now and send all your money to some bad Guangdong guy. I do not normally laugh at the misfortune of my friends, but who could be so stupid as to fall into this trap? There is no such thing as guanxi with the American government, except at levels so high you will never, ever, ever meet anyone with such relationships.

Q: My uncle knows someone who has some relationships with the Customs, and anyway, there is a “special” way to go on a cargo ship to the US. Should I have a try?
A: Maybe you should learn how to swim in the Hai River first before you play around in Tianjin port. I think you would sink and die because you have too many rocks in your head, and if you do, good! You will not cause the American police any trouble sending your body home! If you do not die in the ship on the way or fall into the sea and drown (many people do) you will be caught as soon as you arrive in the US and immediately sent back to China. The port police X-ray every container and you cannot hide from that. They also use CO2 sensors to catch people. And when you come back to China you will still have to pay the criminals who sent you all of the money that you owe them. Anyway, only very stupid people would ever try such things, no one with an education would ever consider it.

Q: Then how should I do it?
A: I usually recommend that you work for an American company with an office in China, or a Chinese company that is expanding in the US. Both of these options will give you an opportunity to do a good job and prove yourself in China where it is easier to hire you and easier to train you. If an opportunity for which you are qualified becomes available in the US, you could apply as an internal transfer. This is usually more attractive to a hiring manager—even if immigration paperwork is required—than hiring an unknown person from outside the company. At this point your competition is less because it’s usually other well-qualified internal candidates versus all of those and well-qualified local external candidates. You may also find that your career is rewarding enough in China that you lose interest in transferring to the US.

Q: The US is my dream! How would I ever lose interest in that? The pay is so much better there!
A: Look at the full picture. The cost of living is relatively higher in the US (aside from buying an apartment, which is much too expensive in most Chinese cities), and the rate of pay increases over time is lower than in China. A typical raise in the US may be only 3% with a small annual bonus, whereas increases of 15% every year and a Spring Festival bonus of up to 3 months’ salary is not uncommon in China. Also, you do not get as much time off, so you will lose money that way. There are also benefits in China that you do not receive in the US, such as the housing fund contribution, contributions to social insurance, etc.

Q: I followed your advice and I’m a finalist for a position in the US! Do you know anything about the logistics?
A: Make sure they are employing you legally on the correct visa. Big companies always do this, but smaller companies (especially Chinese ones) don’t always know how to do this correctly. You’ll need to find a company to sponsor you for a work visa and you need to arrive in the US on a visa that permits work. This isn’t the same as a business visa, which pretty much only allows you to come for meetings, training and conferences. The easiest visa type for Chinese people to obtain in Beijing seems to be the L-1 visa. These are issued to management and executive employees who a company wants to send for temporary work in the US. After living in the US legally for more than 5 years on an L-1 visa (renewed multiple times), your company can help you to apply for a green card. Keep in mind they are not required to do this! Some technical employees (such as software developers) qualify for an H1-B visa, but these are more popular for Indian employees. They allow staying in the US longer but have more restrictions. Both visa types only allow you to work for the company that sponsored the visa. Only when you have a green card can you freely switch to any other company.

Q: Can I bring my family?
A: If you are legally married in a conventional marriage, you can bring your spouse and children (or like most Chinese, the one child you are allowed by the Chinese government) under 21.

Q: Is it really true that if I have a baby in the USA, the baby is automatically a US citizen?
A: Absolutely true! Of course, you should be prepared to pay for the hospital charges and keep in mind that child care is very expensive in the US, so it will be hard to afford very many children. However, beware: US citizenship means a lifetime American tax obligation that follows you anywhere in the world!

Q: Once I already have a green card, can I apply for a US passport? How about my family?
A: Your family can stay in the US based on your green card. You have an eventual path to citizenship and based on this, your family can apply for citizenship. The details about all of this are very complicated and technical so you will need to hire a lawyer who specializes in the area of immigration to guide you through the process. You will need to pass a citizenship examination but anyone who passed Gaokao in China will have no trouble!

If you have finished reading and you are feeling sad at how impossible it all seems, I am really not trying to discourage you! I just think it is important to be realistic. Every year, over one million people come from all over the world to the USA seeking not only a better life, but a chance to join the American Dream. I think that anyone can achieve their dream with a little luck and a lot of hard work. I was just lucky to be born where I was, so I didn’t have to do all of the work. For many, the hard work is worth it and they live very happy new American lives. For others, it is too hard to accept living somewhere with such a different culture, and they finally return to their home countries. Do your research, learn everything you can about the USA, and don’t be afraid to ask your American friends and colleagues questions about life in the US. We are friendly, and it is no trouble. If you can come, I hope to someday welcome you as my newest neighbor!